A Sermon based on John 20: 11-23
It was Easter evening… The first day of the week was coming to a close. Mary Magdalene, who had gone to Jesus’ gravesite just as the sun began to rise -- as did a number of us this morning at the Small Boat Harbor -- reported to the other disciples that the body of Jesus had been moved from its burial place. The body was missing! This was entirely unexpected news! Peter and another disciple ran to investigate the empty tomb … and throughout that first day, the message was spreading that Jesus had risen from the dead! Mary herself went back to the gravesite, and spoke with the gardener about the missing body; but it was Jesus! Alive again! She knows it was him because he called her by name!
Frankly, Jesus’ followers didn’t know what to believe. It was all so incredible, so unexpected, so down-right incomprehensible!
And now, darkness had returned; and with it, the fear...
"It was evening," John tells us in today's Scripture reading, "and the
doors of the house where the disciples had met were shut (for fear of the
Jews). Jesus came & stood among them, and said: 'Peace be with you.'"
Their nerves were already on a hair-trigger! Imagine how startled those eleven remaining male disciples (as well as the women who accompanied them) must have been to have the Risen Christ enter their little huddle!
They had seen him crucified! They had heard his final words from the Cross, and they saw him "give up the ghost." They saw the Roman spear plunged into his side. They saw the blood. They knew he had been buried, and so -- despite the hints and allegations that he was again alive -- how could it be!?
It looked like Jesus; but since he was dead, perhaps this was a ghost...? Their hearts were pounding. If they were afraid before, as the room grew dark... by now they would be petrified! What did it all mean?
Then he spoke to them: "Peace be with you."
The last words Jesus had spoken to them at the Passover meal -- at the Last Supper on Thursday night, before they rose from the communion table to go into the Garden -- his last words to them before those days of suffering began -- are the first words he speaks to them after his resurrection. "Peace be with you."
"Peace be with you."
They are the words that the messenger angels sang at Jesus' birth: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people on earth!" They are the words we use at every memorial service as we commend our loved ones into God's care: "Peace be with you. My peace I give to you." The peace of Christ which passes all understanding be with you.
Those words are a hallmark of God's Realm: "Peace be with you." Easy enough to say... but, oh, how hard it is to "feel peace" when your life is torn-up and troubled! Friends, we need to hear, over and over again, the message of God: "Peace be with you." In our darkness & our fear, in our grief & disbelief, we need to hear Jesus say: "Peace be with you."
But let’s be honest: the more un-expected, unproven, and incredible the situation – the more unbelievable, dare I say “impossible”, and startling the facts are that you are facing – the harder it is to give peace any credence.
The disciples were still wondering, not daring to believe. So Jesus did something. A simple act, and yet it changed everything. He did something simple (which is typical for him), but which has a profound meaning...
Jesus showed them his hands... And that clinched it!
Only one person could belong to those hands -- bruised and bloody as they were, with a wound in each palm through which a spike had been driven. Only one person! He didn't keep them guessing for even a moment as to who he was!
Jesus didn't hide his hands behind his back, as you or I might have done... embarrassed to show their disfigurement. He didn't show just one hand, and then tuck it away in a pocket... He showed them both hands, and the wound in his side as well!
John's Gospel goes on to say (after... he showed them his hands and his side): “then the disciples were glad! When they saw (it was) the Lord, Jesus said to them again: 'Peace be with you.' " "Peace be with you."
Jesus invited the disciples to look upon his wounds -- yes, even to handle them, if needs be -- in order to know (to prove to their satisfaction) that it was really him. Not a ghost, not a spiritual being, not a perfected saint returned in glory, nor an angel in bright raiment... No, it was Jesus, pure and simple, as he always had been.
I remember seeing, in one of the Bible Bookstores a few years ago, a painting by Harry Anderson, where Jesus is seated in a garden with a group of children around him... As Jesus is talking with them, his hands are caught in a gesture. A child seated on his lap is looking at an ugly wound in the palm of Jesus' hand. The title of the picture was: "What happened to your hand?"
The thing that assures us that the Risen Christ is the one & the same Jesus, is that he showed them his wounds! A huge nail had been driven through those hands, to hang him from the wood of a cross, and those marks (stigmata) became his hallmark forever after. Jesus didn't hide his wounds then; he doesn't hide them now! The hands Jesus offered to the executioner’s hammer, he offers to us today! Those arms that stretched out on the cross, embrace us to this very day!
The hands of Jesus Christ, which Harry Anderson's painting depicts as a storyteller and a teacher, blessing the children, were nail-scarred hands! Not just well-worn worker’s hands (like Albrecht Durer’s old friend’s hands which he immortalized in his drawing of “Praying Hands”), Jesus’ hands had been brutalized, tortured! Seeing the scars surprised the children, and it should surprise us, still. Even though we know what happened to them (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are really all about HOW Jesus’ hands got that way!), we ought not be complacent about the meaning of his hands.
These are hands that gave sight to the blind, and that restored hearing to the deaf. These are hands that cleansed the leper, and cured the lame; hands that blessed little children, and raised the dead. The hands of Jesus wiped away tears... His hands helped raise a fallen woman to her feet, when the crowd that had condemned her adultery had gone away. These are the hands that blessed and broke the communion bread, and passed the chalice of wine to his friends.
How ironic that the one who, in his youth, worked with wood, with a hammer and nails (in his father's carpenter shop) in Nazareth, was brought to death by a hammer and nails on a wooden cross. What gift does our world give to the One who showed us how to live? A hammer, three nails, & a rugged cross!
The nail holes in Jesus’ hands are not just "identifying marks" to his followers (although, as I said, it seems they were the “clincher” which overcame their lingering doubts)... Those wounded hands also told the story of God’s deep and enduring love for them. They show something about how far Jesus would go to break the chains of sin and death... How far he would go to bring peace and reconciliation. How far he would STRETCH HIMSELF to bring God's embrace!
How it must have ripped wide open the hearts of his disciples to see in his hands the price he paid for their freedom… for their/our spiritual healing. Jesus knew it would hurt (and it would be hard for his loved ones to look upon), but he didn't hide his hands. In the brokenness of his flesh and the blood of his wounds, the disciples finally understood what "communion" with him meant.
When they saw the wounds in his hands, the disciples fully realized what he had meant when he said that they would have to “take up their cross” if they wanted to follow him any further. It wasn’t just a metaphor; it was life & death! Their fears had made them failures! They fled the cross; hid from sight; closed up shop, and some were already leaving town. Two disciples were on the Road to Emmaus; others were talking about going back to Galilee to resume fishing!
They could have felt like fools and failures, but Jesus comes to them – in their locked room, in the midst of their grief and confusion – and says: "Peace be with you." The fact that they had already been forgiven their faithlessness & fear, their denials & betrayals, their sadness & their scattering, brought them JOY! (That’s why we say “Alleluia!” on Easter.)
Even today, those of us who trust God's mercy -- who live with a sense of God's presence and forgiveness, God’s grace and love -- will see (with the eyes of faith) those hands with the holes in them. Jesus’ hands are not hidden from the faithful -- they are there... breaking the bread of communion and sharing “the blood of the New Covenant”, poured out for the forgiveness of sin.
Only the eyes of faith can see those nail-pierced hands joined in prayer for us before God in the kingdom of heaven. Those wounded hands are placed upon us for healing; those bruised hands are stretched over us in blessing at all times.
When we see with the eyes of faith, those wounded hands of God’s faithful Son are not hidden from us: we're holding them -- even as they are holding us!
Thanks be to God! Amen.